"Toil and Trouble: A Women’s History of the Occult" Book Review

Written by Stephen McClurg

Published by Quirk Books

toil and trouble lisa kroger melanie r anderson poster large

Written by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson
2022, 336 pages, Non-Fiction
Released on October 25, 2022


Lisa Kröger and Melanie Anderson’s work reclaims and celebrates forgotten foremothers from various fields. In Monster, She Wrote, the authors expand the horror canon by showcasing neglected and underappreciated women writers. In Toil and Trouble: A Women’s History of the Occult, the authors show how women shaped the history of witchcraft and the occult in America. Like Monster, She Wrote, Toil and Trouble’s power is in its breadth, from Salem to Spiritualism, from Satanic Panic to Twitter Tarot.

The authors foreground the writers and artists while highlighting how their work relates to political and social realms. Working in the occult can result in persecution, but can also provide income, agency, and influence–even up to the White House. This idea will be familiar to readers of Monster, She Wrote, which presents women employing the language of the Gothic and monstrous in order to empower themselves, and in some cases work through their own hauntings, persecutions, and traumas. Both books show how women were able to do productive work outside the home in times when that was difficult and discouraged, and in fields that garnered them as much scorn as praise.

While not strict academic works, Kröger and Anderson’s books are enjoyable introductions to their subjects and operate almost like annotated bibliographies. Each writer, artist, or personality demands more space than allowed in a survey like this. Despite this, the books are enjoyable, re-readable references. Some examples include how L. Frank Baum’s suffragette and theosophist mother-in-law influenced his creation of Glinda the Good Witch in 1900, the first of her kind in popular culture. If the occult is what’s hidden, then stories like Pamela Colman Smith’s show how many women consciously and unconsciously live in what the writers call an occulted space. Smith drew the most ubiquitous Tarot–the Rider-Waite deck, yet her name was erased from the creation. Now more people are starting to call it the Smith-Waite deck. The first woman to run for president of the United States, Victoria Woodhull, was also a clairvoyant. Her running mate was listed as Frederick Douglass, though he wasn’t aware of it. The authors tell these stories and several others, in readerly ways. One major misstep of the book is spotlighting Lorraine Warren without acknowledging the many disturbing allegations against the Warrens.

One of my favorite stories in the book is about Jemima Wilkinson and the Society of Universal Friends. After being expelled from the Quakers, Wilkinson fell into what was believed to be a fatal fever. Wilkinson eventually sat up from her bed and announced she had died and in her place was the Public Universal Friend, a non-gendered entity that used the body as a host. The Friend began recruiting people, mostly women, to develop their religion. The Friend was celibate, dressed in mixed-gendered clothes, and did not use pronouns. Given the contemporary reaction to these ideas, you can imagine how this story played out in 1776.

While Monster, She Wrote features mostly white American or British women, there is an attempt to draw those boundaries wider in Toil and Trouble. Feminism, like the occult, is not a monolith. These are dynamic projects and have many views within themselves. During second-wave feminism, class, race, and sexuality were discussed and disagreed over within the community itself, making the project a flux of different voices, different communities. The same is happening today, often with the same issues, and expanded to trans-rights, asexuality, and other aspects of gender fluidity.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much space devoted to contemporary arguments about these ideas, though we are told they exist. So many occult readings deal with dualities and opposites, male and female concepts especially. A few types of witchcraft are said to exclude women who don’t have a uterus. Part of the issue seems to be how initially many groups were meant to be places for women to gather and bond together, while the arguments are about identification and definition. As the authors mention, occult language is symbolic. Womb imagery can mean creative energy, whether or not one has a womb. Some view the three ages of women (the maiden, the mother, the crone) as problematic, but even the authors mention the mother as a creative or fertile space, able to be made practical through service or art and not necessarily childbirth. When masculine and feminine are discussed, many occult practitioners don’t see them as exclusionary, but as a means for one to focus on those energies whether or not one identifies either way or on a spectrum. Maybe the duality is the problem. I don’t know how much is about semantics, or exclusion, or animosity. I don’t have the details or experience to speak on this more, but I wish the book did, though I also understand that this isn’t the book’s overall project.


Overall: 4.5 Star Rating Cover
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